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Page 384 | Decolonising the Mind 

Ngugi wa Thiong'o 
from Decolonising the Mind 

In this essay one of Africa's most distinguished novelists discusses some of 
the connections between language and culture. 


I was born into a large peasant family: father, four wives and about twenty- 
eight children. I also belonged, as we all did in those days, to a wider 
extended family and to the community as a whole. 

We spoke Gi kuyH as we worked in the fields. We spoke Gi kttyu in and 
outside the home. I can vividly recall those evenings of storytelling around 
the fireside. It was mosdy the grown-ups telling the children but everybody 
was interested and involved. We children would re-tell the stories the 
following day to other children who worked in the fields picking the 
pyrethrum flowers, tea-leaves or coffee beans of our European and African 

The stories, with mostly animals as the main characters, were all told in 
Gi kuy U. Hare, being small, weak but full of innovative wit and cunning, was 
our hero. We identified with him as he struggled against the brutes of prey 
like lion, leopard, hyena. His victories were our victories and we learnt that 
the apparently weak can outwit the strong. We followed the animals in their 
struggle against hostile nature— drought, rain, sun, wind— a confrontation 
often forcing them to search for forms of co-operation. But we were also 
interested in their struggles amongst themselves, and particularly between the 
beasts and the victims of prey. These twin struggles, against nature and other 
animals, reflected real-life struggles in the human world. 

Not that we neglected stories with human beings as the main characters. 
There were two types of characters in such human-centred narratives: the 
species of truly human beings with qualities of courage, kindness, mercy, 

Decolonising the Mind | Page 385 

hatred of evil, concern for others; and a man-eat-man two-mouthed species 
with qualities of greed, selfishness, individualism and hatred of what was 
good for the larger co-operative community. Co-operation as the ultimate 
good in a community was a constant theme* It could unite human beings 
with animals against ogres and beasts of prey, as in the story of how dove, 
after being fed with castor-oil seeds, was sent to fetch a smith working far 
away from home and whose pregnant wife was being threatened by these 
man-eating two-mouthed ogres. 

There were good and bad story-tellers. A good one could tell the same 
story over and over again, and it would always be fresh to us, the listeners. 
He or she could tell a story told by someone else and make it more alive and 
dramatic. The differences really were in the use of words and images and the 
inflexion of voices to effect different tones. 

We therefore learnt to value words for their meaning and nuances. 
Language was not a mere string of words. It had a suggestive power well 
beyond the immediate and lexical meaning. Our appreciation of the 
suggestive magical power of language was reinforced by the games we played 
with words through riddles, proverbs, transpositions of syllables, or through 
nonsensical but musically arranged words. So we learnt the music of our 
language on top of the content. The language, through images and symbols, 
gave us a view of the world, but it had a beauty of its own. The home and 
the field were then our pre-primary school but what is important, for this 
discussion, is that the language of our evening teach-ins, and the language of 
pur immediate and wider community, and the language of our work in the 
^fields were one. 

And then I went to school, a colonial school, and this harmony was 
broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my 
culture. I first went to Kamaandura, missionary run, and then to another 
called Maanguuu run by nationalists grouped around the Gikuyu Independ- 
ent and Karinga Schools Association. Our language of education was still 
Gikuyu. The very first time I was ever given an ovation for my writing was 
over a composition in Gikuyu. So for my first four years there was still 
harmony between the language of my formal education and that of the 
Limuru peasant community. 

It was after the declaration of a state of emergency over Kenya in 1 952 
that all the schools run by patriotic nationalists were taken over by the 
colonial regime and were placed under District Education Boards chaired by 
Englishmen. English became the language of my formal education. In 

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Kenya, English became more than a language: it was Slanguage, and all the 
others had to bow before it in deference. 

Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking 
GikuyU in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal 
punishment — three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks — or was 
made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM 
STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Sometimes the culprits were fined money they 
could hardly afford. And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button 
was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever 
was caught speaking his mother tongue. Whoever had the button at the end 
of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process 
would bring out all the culprits of the day. Thus children were turned into 
witch-hunters and in the process were being taught the lucrative value of 
being a traitor to one's immediate community. 

The attitude to English was the exact opposite: any achievement in 
spoken or written English was highly rewarded; prizes, prestige, applause; the 
ticket to higher realms. English became the measure of intelligence and 
ability in the arts, the sciences* and all the other branches of learning. English 
became the main determinant of a child's progress up the ladder of formal 

As you may know, the colonial system of education in addition to its 
apartheid racial demarcation had the structure of a pyramid: a broad primary 
base, a narrowihg secondary middle, and an even narrower university apex. 
Selections from primary into secondary were through an examination, in my 
time called Kenya African Preliminary Examination, in which one had to 
pass six subjects ranging from Maths to Nature Study and Kiswahili. All the 
papers were written in English. Nobody could pass the exam who failed the 
English language paper no matter how brilliantly he had done in the other 
subjects* I remember one boy in my class of 1954 who had distinctions in all 
subjects except English, which he had failed. He was made to fail the entire 
exam. He went on to become a turn boy in a bus company. I who had only 
passes but a credit in English got a place at the Alliance High School, one of 
the most elitist institutions for Africans in colonial Kenya. The requirements 
for a place at the University, Makerere University College, were broadly the 
same: nobody could go on to wear the undergraduate red gown, no matter 
how brilliantly they had performed in all the other subjects unless they had 
a credit-— not even a simple passl-— in English. Thus the most coveted place 
in the pyramid and in the system was only available to the holder of an 

Decolonising the Mind | Page 387 

English language credit card. English was the official vehicle and the magic 
formula to colonial elitedoth. 

Literary education was now determined by the dominant language while 
also reinforcing that dominance. Orature (oral literature) in Kenyan 
languages stopped. In primary school I now read simplified Dickens and 
Stevenson alongside Rider Haggard. Jim Hawkins, Oliver Twist, Tom 
Brown — not Hare, Leopard and Lion— were now my daily companions in 
the world of imagination. In secondary school, Scott and G.B. Shaw vied 
with more Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Alan Paton, Captain W.E. Johns. 
At Makerere I read English: from Chaucer to T.S. Eliot with a touch of 
Grahame Greene. 

Thus language and literature were taking us further and further from 
ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds. 

What was the colonial system doing to us Kenyan children? What were 
the consequences of, on the one hand, this systematic suppression of our 
languages and the literature they carried, and on the other the elevation of 
English and the literature it carried? To answer those questions, let me first 
examine the relationship of language to human experience, human culture, 
and the human perception of reality. 


Language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of commu- 
nication and a carrier of culture. Take English; It is spoken in Britain and in 
Sweden and Denmark, But for Swedish and Danish people English is only 
a means of communication with non-Scandinavians. It is not a carrier of 
their culture. For the British, and particularly the English, it is additionally, 
and inseparably from its use as a tool of communication, a carrier of their 
culture and history. Or take Swahili in East and Central Africa. It is widely 
used as a means of communication across many nationalities. But it is not 
the carrier of a culture and history of many of those nationalities. However 
in parts of Kenya and Tanzania, and particularly in Zanzibar, Swahili is 
inseparably both a means of communication and a carrier of the culture of 
those people to whom it is a mother-tongue. 

Language as communication has three aspects or elements. There is first 
what Karl Marx once called the language of real life, the element basic to the 
whole notion of language, its origins and development: that is, the relations 
people enter into with one anbmer in the labour process, the links they^ 
necessarily establish among themselves in the act of a people, a community 
of human beings, producing wealth or means of life like food, clothing, 

Page 388 | Decolonising the Mind 

houses. A human community really starts its historical being as a community 
of co-operation in production through the division of labour; the simplest 
is between man, woman and child within a household; the more complex 
divisions are between branches of production such as those who are sole 
hunters, sole gatherers of fruits or sole workers in metal. Then there are the 
most complex divisions such as those in modern factories where a single 
product, say a shirt or a shoe, is the result of many hands and minds. 
Production is co-operation, is communication, is language, is expression of 
a relation between human beings and it is specifically human. 

The second aspect of language as communication is speech and it 
imitates the language of real life, that is communication in production. The 
verbal signposts both reflect and aid communication or the relation 
established between human beings in the production of their means of life. 
Language as a system of verbal signposts makes that production possible. 
The spoken word is to relations between human beings what the hand is to 
the relations between human beings and nature. The hand through tools 
mediates between human beings and nature and forms the language of real 
life: spoken words mediate between human beings and form the language of 

The third aspect is the written signs. The written word imitates the 
spoken. Where the first two aspects of language as communication through 
the hand and the spoken word historically evolved more or less simulta- 
neously, the written aspect is a much later historical development. Writing 
is representation of sounds with visual symbols, from the simplest knot 
among shepherds to tell the number in a herd or the hieroglyphics among 
the Agikuyu gicaandi singers and poets of Kenya, to the most complicated 
and different letter and picture writing systems of the world today. 

In most societies the written and the spoken languages are the same, in 
that they represent each other: what is on paper can be read to another 
person and be received as that language, which the recipient has grown up 
speaking. In such a society there is broad harmony for a child between the 
three aspects of language as communication. His interaction with nature and 
with other men is expressed in written and spoken symbols or signs which 
are both a result of that double interaction and a reflection of it. The 
association of the child's sensibility is with the language of his experience of 

But there is more to it: communication between human beings is also 
the basis and process of evolving culture. In doing similar lands of things and 
actions over and over again under similar circumstances, similar even in their 

Decolonising the Mind | Page 389 

mutability, certain patterns, moves, rhythms, habits, attitudes, experiences 
and knowledge emerge. Those experiences are handed over to the next 
generation and become the inherited basis for their further actions on nature 
and on themselves. There is a gradual accumulation of values whicK in time 
become almost self-evident truths governing their conception of what is right 
and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, courageous and cowardly, 
generous and mean in their internal and external relations. Over a time this 
becomes a way of life distinguishable from other ways of life. They develop 
a distinctive culture and history. Culture embodies those moral, ethical and 
aesthetic values, the set of spiritual eyeglasses, through which they come to 
view themselves and their place in the universe. Values are the basis of a 
people's identity, their sense of particularity as members of the human race. 
All this is carried by language. Language as culture is the collective memory 
bank of a peoples experience in history. Culture is almost indistinguishable 
from the language that makes possible its genesis, growth, banking, 
articulation and indeed its transmission from one generation to the next. 

Language as culture also has three important aspects. Culture is a 
product of the history which it in turn reflects. Culture in other words is a 
product and a reflection of human beings communicating with one another 
in the very struggle to create wealth and to control it. But culture does not 
merely reflect that history, or rather it does so by actually forming images or 
pictures of the world of nature and nurture. Thus the second aspect of 
language as culture is as an image-forming agent in the mind of a child. Our 
whole conception of ourselves as a people, individually and collectively, is 
based on those pictures and images which may or may not correctly 
correspond to the actual reality of the struggles with nature and nurture 
which produced them in the first place. But our capacity to confront the 
world creatively is dependent on how those images correspond or not to that 
reality, how they distort or clarify the reality of our struggles. Language as 
culture is thus mediating between me and my own self; between my own self 
and other selves; between me and nature. Language is mediating in my very 
being. And this brings us to the third aspect of language as culture. Culture 
transmits or imparts those images of the world and reality through the 
spoken and the written language, that is through a specific language. In other 
words, the capacity to speak, the capacity to order sounds in a manner that 
makes for mutual comprehension between human beings is universal. This 
is the universality of language, a quality specific to human beings. It 
corresponds to the universality of the struggle against nature and that 
between human beings. But the particularity of the sounds, the words, the 

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word order into phrases and sentences, and the specific manner, or laws, of 
their ordering is what distinguishes one language from another. Thus a 
specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in 
its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific 
history. Written literature and orature are the main means by which a 
particular language transmits the images of the world contained in the 
culture it carries. 

Language as communication and as culture are then products of each 
other. Communication creates culture: culture is a means of communication. 
Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature 
and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive 
ourselves and our place in the world. How people perceive themselves affects 
how they look at their culture, at their politics and at the social production 
of wealth, at their entire relationship to nature and to other beings. Language 
is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a 
specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the 


So what was the colonialist imposition of a foreign language doing to us 

The real aim of colonialism was to control the people's wealth: what they 
produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in 
other words, the entire realm of the language of real life. Colonialism 
imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military 
conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area 
of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through 
culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the 
world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective 
without mental control. To control a peoples culture is to control their tools 
of self-definition in relationship to others. 

For colonialism this involved two aspects of the same process: the 
destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a peoples culture, their art, 
dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and 
the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser. The domination of 
a people's language by the languages of the colonising nations was crucial to 
the domination of the mental universe of the colonised. 

Take language as communication. Imposing a foreign language, and 
suppressing the native languages as spoken and written, were already 

Decolonising the Mind | Page 391 

breaking the harmony previously existing between the African child and the 
three aspects of language. Since the new language as a means of communica- 
tion was a product of and was reflecting the "real language of life" elsewhere, 
it could never as spoken or written properly reflect or imitate the real life of 
that community. This may in part explain why technology always appears 
to us as slightly external, their product and not ours. The word "missile" used 
to hold an alien far-away sound until I recently learnt its equivalent in 
Gikuyu, ngurukuhizrA it made me apprehend it differently. Learning, for 
a colonial child, became a cerebral activity and not an emotionally felt 

But since the new, imposed languages could never completely break the 
native languages as spoken, their most effective area of domination was the 
third aspect of language as communication, the written. The language of an 
African child's formal education was foreign. The language of the books he 
read was foreign. The language of his conceptualisation was foreign. 
Thought, in him, took the visible form of a foreign language. So the written 
language of a child's upbringing in the school (even his spoken language 
within the school compound) became divorced from his spoken language at 
home. There was often not the slightest relationship between the child's 
written world, which was also the language of his schooling, and the world 
of his immediate environment in the family and the community. For a 
colonial child, the harmony existing between the three aspects of language 
as communication was irrevocably broken. This resulted in the disassociation 
of the sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment, what 
we might call colonial alienation. The alienation became reinforced in the 
teaching of history, geography, music, where bourgeois Europe was always 
the centre of the universe. 

This disassociation, divorce, or alienation from the immediate environ- 
ment becomes clearer when you look at colonial language as a carrier of 

Since culture is a product of the history of a people which it in turn 
reflects, the child was now being exposed exclusively to a culture that was a 
product of a world external to himself. He was being made to stand outside 
himself to look at himself. Catching Them Young is the tide of a book on 
racism, class, sex, and politics in children's literature by Bob Dixon. 
"Catching them young" as an aim was even more true of a colonial child. 
The images of his world and his place in it implanted in a child take years to 
eradicate, if they ever can be. 

Page39 2 I Decolonising the Mind 

Since culture does not just reflect the world in images but actually, 
through those images, conditions a child to see that world a certain way, the 
colonial child was made to see the world and where he stands in it as seen 
and defined by or reflected in the culture of the language of imposition. 

And since those images are mostly passed on through orature and 
literature it meant the child would now only see the world as seen in the 
literature of his language of adoption. From the point of view of alienation, 
that is of seeing oneself from outside oneself as if one was another self, it does 
not matter that the imported literature carried the great humanist tradition 
of the best Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoy, Gorky, Brecht, Sholokhov, 
Dickens. The location of this great mirror of imagination was necessarily 
Europe and its history and culture and the rest of the universe was seen from 
that centre. 

But obviously it was worse when the colonial, child was exposed to 
images of his world as mirrored in the written languages of his coloniser. 
Where his own native languages were associated in his impressionable mind 
with low status, humiliation, corporal punishment, slow- footed intelligence 
and ability or downright stupidity, non-intelligibility and barbarism, this was 
reinforced by the world he met in the works of such geniuses of racism as a 
Rider Haggard or a Nicholas Monsarrat; not to mention the pronouncement 
of some of the giants of western intellectual and political establishment, such 
us Hume ("..The negro is naturally inferior to the whites..."), Thomas 
Jefferson (". . .The blacks. . .are inferior to the whites on the endowments of 
both body and mind. . . "), or Hegel with his Africa comparable to a land of 
childhood still enveloped in the dark mantle of the night as far as the 
development of self-conscious history was concerned. Hegel's statement that 
(here was nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in the African 
character is representative of the racist images of Africans and Africa such a 
colonial child was bound to encounter in the literature of the colonial 
languages. The results could be disastrous. 



1 . How do you feel the opening sentence affects the average Western 
reader? Why would Ngugi choose to write this, and to place it in such 
a prominent location in his essay? 

2. What is the rhetorical purpose of paragraph M? Is it effective? 

Decolonising the Mind | Page 393 

3. In paragraph 1 5, Ngugi argues that a language has a communication 
function for all people who speak that language, but that it also serves 
as a carrier of culture for all those for whom that language is the 
mother-tongue. If you speak two or more languages, does this 
assertion meet with your own experience? 

4. Discuss how the imposition of a foreign language breaks "the 
harmony previously existing between the African child and the three 
aspects of language" (paragraph 26). 

5. Toward the end of his essay, Ngugi makes reference to the European- 
based writers of literature he was forced to study as a child, and how 
these stories did not match his own experiences. How do the poems, 
essays, plays and novels you are being asked to read in this course 
reflect your experiences? If you were the instructor of this course, how 
would you go about selecting a reading list?